Kosher commandos: Mashgichim learn their craft

Kosher commandos: Mashgichim learn their craft

Just as a master chef has command over every inch of his kitchen, from the storage of his prized specially sharpened knives to the ordering of exotic ingredients, so too must a mashgiach.

As chefs in white grilled dozens of salmon filets and busboys pushed dish carts, Rabbi Moshe Perlmutter, a kashrut supervisor for the Orthodox Union, led a group of students and rabbis on a tour of the kitchen in Manhattan’s Hyatt hotel last week, part of the eighth Harry H. Beren AskOU program, which was offered in one-week and three-week sessions.

Rabbi Moshe Perlmutter shows the intricacies of the Hyatt’s ovens as part of Ask OU. photos by josh lipowsky

A mashgiach, he explained, must intimately know the kitchen and its contents, especially in a hotel kitchen with an outside caterer. The Hyatt kitchen is not supervised daily but the OU will kasher it — to cleanse it according to Jewish law — for catered events. When that happens, the mashgiach needs to know every inch of the kitchen, as well as be in contact with the caterer.

Especially when it comes to kashering grills and ovens, a mashgiach needs to know exactly what he is doing or the kitchen really can go up in flames, Perlmutter said. Some grills are equipped with their own heat sensors that go off if they get too hot, which can happen under the extreme heat needed to kasher them. When these sensors go off, they can often cause an evacuation of the entire hotel.

"We really saw the minutiae of the OU," said Rabbi Leib Irons of Jerusalem, who was on the three-week program. "It’s amazing how they’ve perfected the techniques. If you don’t know what you’re doing you could blow up the whole kitchen."

Rabbi Dov Schreier, center, explains the personal side of being a mashgiach at The Prime Grill last week.

Back in one of the meeting rooms, Perlmutter demonstrated just how much a mashgiach needs to know, as he held up different serving pieces and asked how they were used, which could affect how they would be koshered.

Is the gooseneck serving dish for cold salad dressing or hot gravy? Does the hotel have round or square holders for the caterer’s round chafing dishes? Are the water pitchers used just for cold water (don’t need to be kashered) or for other beverages as well (need to be kashered)? And then there are the thousands of pieces of silverware that need to be cleaned and submerged in boiling water to make sure they are properly kashered.

This year’s AskOU program had 75 participants, the largest number yet, said Rabbi Yosef Grossman, director of AskOU and kashrut education. The program, held every other year, is sponsored by the Harry H. Beren Foundation of Lakewood.

"The people were very impressed with the expertise of the presenters and their commitment to high standards of kashrut," Grossman said. "It’s both the knowledge and the commitment" that are needed to be a mashgiach. One without the other just won’t work, he said.

The three-week session, which began Aug. 7, was geared mainly to students who intend to go into kosher supervision full time. The one-week session was for synagogue rabbis, students, or those involved in kashrut certification on a local level, who wanted to learn more about the OU’s standards. People in both sessions toured restaurants, hotels, and factories to learn what the life of a mashgiach really is like.

In order for a mashgiach to do his job well, he has to earn the respect of the chefs and other restaurant staff and let them know that he respects them and the work they do, Rabbi Dov Schreier, rabbinic coordinator of the OU’s kashrut division, told last week’s session meeting at the upscale Prime Grill in Manhattan, one of about 30 restaurants under OU supervision in New York.

Rabbi Moshe Perlmutter holds up a water pitcher as an example of how familiar a mashgiah needs to be with a kitchen.

Only then, Schreier said, can he maintain total control of what comes into and what goes on in the kitchen. "Sixty percent of the job of a mashgiach is public relations," said Schreier.

As waitstaff set down silverware on the white tablecloths at The Prime Grill Tuesday morning, waiting for the restaurant to open in a few hours, Schreier and a dozen students gathered in the dining room as he explained the personal side of being a mashgiach. It all comes down to respect, he said.

There are three options for a mashgiach when it comes to interacting with a restaurant’s staff: to be "one of the guys"; not to be "one of the guys" but still be respected; and to be on the outs with the rest of the staff.

"In the frum world, the first option doesn’t exist," he said, since the mashgiach can’t go to bars after work with staff members, who are usually not kosher-observant. "He has to be friendly but can’t be friends. The moment you become friends, they lose respect for you."

When ordering ingredients, the mashgiach has to know everything that comes into the kitchen, and often is responsible for receiving all shipments to the restaurant. Kosher restaurant pantries usually are kept under lock and key, with only the mashgiach able to unlock their bounty, just to prevent any treif food from getting mixed in.

Akiva Pollak, a student at the Lakewood Yeshiva, was fascinated by how much a mashgiach has to know about the kitchen. "It’s not like a kitchen at home," he said. "There’s no way to know without being trained. So many things happen in a kosher kitchen to make sure it stays kosher."

Dovid Wohlberg, who works part time for the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County as a mashgiach for Chopstix and Mabat in Teaneck, found the entire week to be an eye-opening experience, especially last Thursday, when the group traveled to the Oasis Foods Co. factory in Hillside, which produces margarine, butter, and salad dressing and other condiments, not all of which are certified kosher.

"Just seeing the kosherization process and what the rabbi has to watch over — kosher lines, nonkosher lines, the sheer size of it and all the details he has to be on top of — I found amazing," Wohlberg said. "Everything it takes to get the food to the table with the OU on it is very interesting."

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